Malaysia is on track to becoming a regional education hub judging from the positive feedback in various countries which already have their students here.
RECENTLY I had the privilege of visiting Abu Dhabi, Kazakhstan, and China with our Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak. I was curious to find out what the locals thought of our higher education system, and so I asked.
Starting with Abu Dhabi, UAE, we were greeted by a local ministry official who used to study in Universiti Malaya (UM). Greeting us with a boisterous “Assalamualaikum (May peace be upon you)! Selamat datang (welcome)!” he told us that Malaysia was an attractive higher education destination for Middle Easterners. On top of its affordability, Malaysia’s attractiveness stemmed from her moderate Muslim approach which largely freed her of problems associated with extremism.
He told me that he felt “spiritually comfortable” in Malaysia. He remarked that although race relations were at times strenuous, this wasn’t prevalent and it was common for him to join his fellow Malay, Chinese and Indian course mates at the local eatery. Favourite food? Nasi lemak ayam goreng, of course. Malaysians, he said, had a lot going for them.
Similar feelings were conveyed in Kazakhstan, the world’s ninth largest country. With a population of about 18 million people of which 70% are Muslims and 23.9% Orthodox Christians, Kazakhstan shares many similarities with Malaysia. They have such admiration for us that their capital city Astana has been modelled and developed after our very own Putrajaya.
In Kazakhstan, I had a chat with an embassy official, a young lady with unique features (best described as Chinese-Russian-esque), who previously studied in Lim Kok Wing University.
She told me that she and her friends (some of whom studied at Universiti Putra Malaysia) felt welcome here because Malaysians were very accepting of other cultures. Malaysia’s stability and moderate religious image (a recurring viewpoint), she said, makes Malaysia a very popular higher education destination especially for central Asian nations.
I believe there’s a lot of truth to this – there are about 1,700 Kazakhstanis in public and private Malaysian higher education institutions. From central Asia alone, the number is around 2,500 students and these numbers are growing.
I also had the privilege of meeting the rector of a university in Kazakhstan who happened to be their former education minister. He said that he would be coming to Malaysia soon to learn English as Malaysia offered the best choices and was most relatable.
He was also impressed with the command of English of most Malaysian businessmen and public officials that he has met. I’ve extended an invitation and look forward to receiving him in the near future.
Finally, I was in China as part of Malaysia’s delegation for the 40th anniversary celebrations of diplomatic relations.
During the visit, I met an Education Malaysia, Beijing officer named Xu Zhen, a Chinese national. A student of Kolej Damansara Utama, Penang campus, he has been working for Education Malaysia for more than 10 years.
He said that he had a positive higher education experience in Malaysia and enjoys working with Malaysians, and this motivated him to continue promoting Malaysian higher education in his homeland. The one complaint he had was that he gained 10kg while studying because Penang’s “food paradise” reputation was unfriendly to his waistline.
The passion seen in Xu Zhen was also seen amongst alumni of universities such as Universiti Malaya, SEGi University, and UCSI, whom I met at an education fair in Beijing, which attracted over 100,000 people. The alumni were handing out pamphlets and answering the questions of prospective students.
They told me that studying in Malaysia was mentally and culturally stimulating, and they wanted other Chinese students to have the opportunity. Their willingness to volunteer despite having left Malaysia a while back was encouraging.
Between 2012 and 2013, there was a 73% increase in Chinese students coming to study in Malaysia. Currently, there are more than 6,800 Chinese students studying in Malaysia.
In total, there are about 123,000 international students in Malaysian higher education institutions hailing from 163 countries. By 2020, the Government aims to attract up to 200,000. A Unesco report has placed Malaysia as the 11th preferred education destination. God willing, we will continue to improve.
Universiti Malaya recently obtained a five-star rating from the QS Intelligence Unit, on par with top universities such as New York, Duke and Columbia. Science University of Malaysia aka USM (my alma mater) recently ranked 28th best in the world for environmental sciences and 38th in chemical engineering, whereas National University of Malaysia or UKM ranked 19th best in the world for universities below the age of 50 according to the QS Rankings.
Recently, I was in USM for a showcase of our research universities’ successes, and was amazed by the research and development taking place within our local universities.
These achievements are a testament to our efforts in upholding (and improving) the quality of education in Malaysia.
Education Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin and I have previously said that rankings aren’t everything, as it is the learning process that matters. I strongly believe experience is where our strength lies.
The above said, from time to time we do face problems such as abuse of student visas, drugs and involvement in anti-social activities. We also receive complaints from international students being inconvenienced by enforcement agencies.
These problems are the exception rather than the norm, but we take this seriously. We have set up Education Malaysia Global Services (EMGS) to address these concerns. Through a link-up between EMGS and the Immigration Department, we hope to serve our international students more efficiently and effectively.
From Abu Dhabi to Kazakhstan and then China, I am buoyed by the reception of others towards our higher education system. Though internally, some remain cynical towards our education system, I firmly believe that we have many good things going for us, and we continuously work hard to improve.
Without a doubt, I believe that we are on track and that Malaysia will become a regional education hub.
> Datuk Seri Idris Jusoh is Malaysia’s Second Education Minister. He tweets at @idrisjusoh. He oversees the Trust Schools programme and is a strong believer in the School-Based Assessment initiative. The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own.